By Charlotte Triggs Kay West Elaine Aradillas
September 26, 2011 12:00 PM

I’m going to do eyeliner, Mommy, and I’m not going to blink!” Kailia Deliz announces, sitting in the makeup chair backstage at California’s Gold Coast Beauty Pageant Sept. 11. Two hours into her preshow prep, the 5-year-old pageant vet already has the requisite spray tan, French manicured press-on nails, wig and hair extensions, plus a “flipper” (pageant lingo for fake teeth that are snapped in place) she wears to perfect her onstage smile. Then it’s time for finishing touches. “Last time, she didn’t want fake eyelashes, but the older she gets, the better she is. She gets into it,” says her mom, Marcy, unpacking Kailia’s bejeweled pink and white “glitz” dress (price tag: $2,000). After her trip across the stage, they top off her final look with children’s high heels that would make Victoria Beckham jealous. “Hey, Miss U.S.A. wears 6-in. heels!” Marcy points out with a laugh, as Kailia-who goes on to win the Overall Highpoint title, the Oxnard, Calif., pageant’s top honor-plays with a toy cell phone. “You gotta prep somehow!”

Kailia, like many kids on the child pageant circuit, is being groomed for bigger titles down the line, but critics of the industry warn that the stresses of competition, coupled with an extreme focus on physical appearance, can have a negative effect long before these girls will be eligible for Miss America. As the popular TLC reality series Toddlers & Tiaras has reignited controversy over a culture made notorious by the JonBenet Ramsey tragedy, the parents behind these pageants continue to go to extreme lengths to win. Their behavior, broadcast each week to an audience of more than 2 million people, is often outrageous (waxing screaming children’s eyebrows; booking pre-pageant chiropractor visits) and, to some, alarming. In an August Tiaras episode, Lindsay Jackson outfitted daughter Madisyn Verst, then 4, with faux breasts and padding for her derriere to more convincingly portray the curvaceous Dolly Parton; a week later, Wendy Dickey dressed up her 3-year-old daughter Paisley in Julia Roberts‘s streetwalker costume from Pretty Woman, complete with a cut-out dress and over-the-knee boots. (She won.)

Many critics of the show, which has long showcased the behind-the-scenes tantrums and controversial onstage moments, were outraged. “This is the most blatant example of sexualization of a child that I have seen,” says Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education for the Parents Television Council, which is calling for the network to cancel the series. “There has to be a lesson here. This has gone too far.” The network, for its part, denies any wrongdoing. “Some of the costumes the families come up with may be deemed inappropriate, but we’re just observing and documenting. We’re not costuming the kids,” Amy Winter, TLC’s executive vice president and general manager says of Tiaras, which airs its season finale on Sept. 21. “We’re not passing judgment, and we’re not condoning anything.”

The children’s parents, who are not paid for their Tiaras appearances, staunchly defend their choice of risque costumes. Dickey, a Georgia native, was horrified at the reaction to the Pretty Woman outfit and notes that viewers never saw Paisley’s second outfit-the film’s dainty brown polka-dot dress-which made the performance “tasteful and funny,” she says. Still, “If I knew there would be a reaction like this, I never would have used it,” Dickey says. “Next time, she’ll be dressed as an angel.”

Meanwhile, Madisyn’s mother, Lindsay Jackson, herself a former pageant queen from Nashville, says padding her daughter’s costume was just a colorful way to give her a little edge. “I think it’s cultural, the reactions,” says Jackson, whose own mother helps foot the five-figure annual bill for Maddy’s many pageants. “When she wore that [Dolly Parton costume] to a pageant in Kentucky, people loved it; in Connecticut, they didn’t get it,” she says. (Pageants in the south outnumber those in the rest of the country.) “Everyone acts like I am trying to sexualize my daughter, but it’s ridiculous. If I put Maddy in a Jason costume for Halloween, would people think I was trying to turn her into a serial killer?” (Several parents also concede that concerns about sexual predators at the pageants are ever-present, but pageant insiders insist that security is always a priority, and guests are generally limited to friends and family of the contestants.)

Supporters of the industry, which first gained popularity in the 1960s before exploding to more than 5,000 pageants a year today (Pageantry magazine CEO Carl Dunn estimates that 250,000 children below age 14 compete annually), are quick to dismiss what appears to be a trend towards overly adult outfits as a few overhyped incidents. “You are always going to have that one person that takes things too far,” says Annette Hill, director of Universal Royalty, a Texas-based “glitz pageant” featured on the series. (Glitz, as opposed to “natural” pageants, can cost upward of $1,000 to enter and require full hair and makeup and a “fancy” dress to compete. The entrance fees are often higher than the grand prizes, which can be as high as $10,000 but are generally around $500.) “This is sensationalized because it’s a TV show. People want to see outrageous,” she adds. “These are just costumes. The kids are fully clothed. What girl doesn’t want to play with Mom and do dress-up?”

But child development experts point to a difference between playing dress-up and making a career out of it. “Little girls are supposed to play with dolls, not be dolls,” says Mark Sichel, a New York-based licensed clinical social worker, who calls the extreme grooming common at pageants “a form of child abuse.” Playing dress-up “is normal and healthy, but when it’s demanded, it leaves the child not knowing what they want,” he says. Accentuating their appearance with such accoutrements as fake hair, teeth, spray tans and breast padding “causes the children tremendous confusion, wondering why they are not okay without those things.”

In extreme cases, body-image experts warn, these children may eventually become obsessed with their appearance, putting them at risk for eating disorders or making them seek out plastic surgery. “You see a high rate of dissatisfaction with their looks when they are older,” says Dr. Martina Cartwright, a psychologist and nutritionist who has worked with professional dancers. “There are unrealistic expectations to be perfect. They strive to be flawless, and they can take that too far.”

Conversely, many pageant parents argue that there’s no better confidence boost than winning a pageant. “My daughter is much more confident and outgoing than other kids her age,” says Dickey, who first put Paisley in a pageant at 6 months. “She has a huge personality. That will be important later on.” Others insist they’re merely accommodating their children’s desires to do pageants-a claim psychologists dismiss as impossible at that age. “A 3-year-old doesn’t have the understanding of what it takes to do this and the decision they are making,” says psychiatrist Lee S. Cohen.

Even without the criticism, parents say the pressures of pageantry are enormous, especially financially. “Pageants are stressful! It’s a major job,” says Mickie Wood, whose daughter Eden, 6, swept the national circuit before “retiring” from pageants this summer to pursue modeling. “You have to be dedicated if you want to run with the big dogs, and it’s very expensive.” Wood estimates that she spent close to $100,000 in a few short years keeping Eden competition-ready. “You’re never going to win that money back, even if they win every weekend,” she admits. “But you’ve got to do it, because your kid loves and excels at it and it’s something you enjoy as a family.”

Juana Myers understands that commitment, saying pageants have been a perfect match for her daughter MaKenzie’s big personality. The 6-year-old, who has been heavily featured on Tiaras, was 18 months old when she did her first pageant, at the Louisiana Pecan Festival. “She was laughing onstage. She loved it, and she won!” Juana recalls. When MaKenzie turned 4, they began taking pageants seriously. “She transforms when she gets onstage,” Juana says, recalling their first major pageant, a day full of tantrums and tears. “The hair and makeup took hours. The whole thing was overwhelming. I thought, ‘What have I gotten us into?'” Juana says.

But after winning a crown, a sash, and the title of Supreme Queen at Le Maison de Paris’s Louisiana-based pageant, MaKenzie changed her tune: “After that, she kept asking, ‘Can we go back? Can we go back?'”